But, on to the main event.
A very long time ago, in a land over an ocean and a ways down the coast of a sea, there lived a man named Augustine, who would eventually become known as St. Augustine of Hippo. He was a very bright fellow, who was already well known for his theology and philosophy before he died, and has managed to maintain this reputation down to the present. He lived at a time of great political and intellectual upheaval, as the Western Roman Empire was in its death throes and Christianity was sweeping aside the old pagan order. Now, there were those who advocated what could be called “not-thought-of-here” when it came to the old philosophers and theorists, claiming that they were irretrievably tainted by their paganism.
Augustine, however, disagreed, claiming that the ideas of the philosophers that were not against Christianity could be taken from them, as the Israelites plundered the gold of the Egyptians. In the end, the church agreed with him.
The fact is, I have no problem with this–the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, after all, and who is to say that the same does not apply to ideas as well.
As the title indicates, there are some issues with this gold. I refer you to Exodus 32:1-4, when the Israelites, or at least a faction of them, had Aaron make them a golden calf. Now, here’s an interesting question. Where did the gold come from? The Israelites were in the middle of the desert and they had been slaves, who tend not to gather precious metals in large quantities. There’s only one possible answer: the gold the Israelites picked up from the Egyptians.
Now, if one will permit me a bit of Augustinian metaphor-stretching, the issue should be plain. What we pull from non-Christian sources can easily be turned into golden calves–everything from philosophy to rhetoric to practical politics and messaging.
How do we know that we’ve turned it into a golden calf? As a general rule, does it go against what God has specifically ordered or said? If so, are we still doing it? If yes, then you have a golden calf.
Has it become more important than what God has said to do? If yes, then you have a golden calf.
It is getting between you and God? If so, you have a golden calf.
Is it causing you to throw wild parties involving obscene fertility rituals? If so, you have a golden calf.
But anyway, the point here is not to say that ideas coming from non-Biblical sources are automatically bad. I mean, even the Bible requires some degree of discerning between what the people are described as doing and what we should actually do. However, just for an example. we’re still dealing with a lot of the stuff from Neoplatonism that wasn’t from common grace but made it into Christian thought anyway. And don’t even get me started on politics.
It is best if we tread carefully when looting ideas from outside the faith, lest we offer strange fire before Yahweh. Do not assume that because you think an idea sounds like it would be a great way to worship or serve God that God will agree. That tends to end…badly.
‘Til next time,
Lowell Van Ness